Updated: Nov 19, 2021
Halfway through the Slovenian presidency of the European Council, EU Member States met with their counterparts from the Western Balkans in Brdo pri Kranju for the gift that keeps on giving: talks of EU enlargement. While the list of Members has not been extended in almost a decade, the discussion over the accession of the former Yugoslav countries into the Union remains one of the most pressing issues for the Commission. It’s importance is recognised by Brussels, as it has heavily invested in the region with a series of programs aimed at stabilizing the emerging democracies, laying the groundwork for their eventual accession. Despite this, the prominent figures of the Union have been more restrained in recent years in the use of the words ‘accession’ and ‘enlargement’, begging the question of whether enlargement is grinding to a halt, and if so, why?
Albania, Montenegro, Serbia and North Macedonia were all granted candidate status almost a decade ago, with Kosovo and Bosnia & Herzegovina still awaiting approval from the EU Council. Both have adopted and enforced the ‘Stabilization and Association Agreement’ (SAA), but only the latter has received an Avis from the Commission, an in-depth analysis of the country laying out its pre-negotiation priorities. The efforts of consolidating regional stability through a series of accords - between Albania and Serbia with Kosovo - were accompanied by a complete overhaul of the extant enlargement framework - the ‘Stabilization and Association Process’ (SAP), in use since 1999 - after the negative experience of the 2007 accessions. The key component of the framework is the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA), through which more than 24 billion euros have been funneled into the region.
In spite of a continued show of commitment to the alignment of former Yugoslavia to the EU ethos of ‘reform and prosper’, one cannot help but notice the absence of the same enthusiasm at the Slovenian summit – the word ‘enlargement’ appears only once in the summit’s final declaration. The high spirits of Western Balkan leaders were painted on a background of low expectations and frustration, especially on the part of the North Macedonian and Albanian delegations, following Bulgaria’s continued opposition to the latter’s accession. The incrementalist nature of the enlargement process can be traced back to the Commission’s decision to restructure the 1993 Copenhagen criteria.
The continued expansion of the EU’s legal body has posed increased political and bureaucratic difficulties for EU institutions, and the ugly memories of post-2007 enlargement prompted negotiators to begin talks by focusing on Justice and Home Affairs which have previously been the most difficult issues in early integration. Hungary and Poland’s recent debacle with Brussels over the rule of law is sure to preclude any move to more benign accession requirements. In addition, the incentives for Member States are also diminishing. Continued regional instability alongside the shift of the Union’s strategic focus to the Middle East, North Africa, the ‘buffer states’ between the EU and Russia and the cyber rivalry with China have limited the geopolitical benefits of enlargement. These are all symptoms of a general ‘EU fatigue’, clearly expressed in the agenda of the Commission under Jean-Claude Juncker, which failed to mention any enlargement plans. However, this fatigue has spilled over into the Western Balkans itself, where the prevailing attitude is ‘a mix of resigned and fatalistic Euro-realism and growing Euroscepticism’. This issue is especially acute in Serbia, where sympathy towards the EU scores the lowest among its population, not least because of the enduring trauma of the NATO bombing campaign of 1999. While support has slowly risen - from 36% in 2014 to 54% in 2021 - contentious issues such as the recognition of Kosovo and its linkage to EU accession still stand in the way of broad support.
Serbia also lies at the root of many of the problems facing EU enlargement. While already undergoing negotiations, the country has made little progress towards full membership. Most importantly, Serbian officials have adopted policies and appropriated a rhetoric of a ‘Serb world’, startlingly similar to the discourse that brought the Yugoslav republic to its knees. Tensions with Kosovo have spiked yet again in September after the Serbian government deployed armored vehicles, jets and helicopters at the border, allegedly in support of Serbian protesters, angered by the introduction of new border regulations. The conflict continued well into October, when protesters once again clashed with the police. East of Serbia, where the Dayton Accords have been crucial in stifling ethnic tensions for the past quarter of a century, social cohesion is under threat as the president of Republika Srpska, one of the two entities making up Bosnia & Herzegovina and containing an overwhelmingly Serb majority, has recently announced its intention of withdrawing the state from national institutions such as the tax authority, medicines agency and the armed forces. Meanwhile in Montenegro, ethnic divisions have arisen once again with the election of the new metropolitan of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro.
The common denominator in all of these conflicts is the Serbian government, whose influence has been more or less covert, but sanctioned by the populist appeal to a Greater Serbia, incorporated in the discourse of the governing Progressive Party. While there is presently no immediate risk of military conflict, the situation has greatly destabilized the region, undermining the prospect of progress towards fulfilling the accession criteria. What is especially concerning is the fact that the problem is not contained within a single candidate member, but is affecting every nation, including those closest to EU membership.
Presented here is a unique opportunity for the EU to shift from a reactive role to a proactive stance by shaping the future of its community. While the Union and its Allies have always been one step behind in everything Balkan this does not mean that they are confined to passivity. On the contrary, twenty years of heavy investment and support from both the EU and NATO have undoubtedly restructured the dynamics in the Western Balkans, opening up the region for the West to mould former Yugoslavia in its own image. While it is still disputed as to whether the EU has successfully integrated Central and Eastern Europe into its community, the alternative of leaving the Balkans in the ‘waiting room’ opens up a host of issues for regression, disintegration and eurosceptic efforts to degrade broader EU borders and stability.